There’s a wonderful charm to Stanley Sievers’ debut short Samurai Sword. It follows a down-and-out guy as he comes into possession of a sword which he is led to believe has magical properties. But it’s really a film about a man-child coming of age and realising how his destructive behaviour affects those around him. Sievers’ revels in the comedic mess of his protagonist, frequently indulging in the character’s embrace of his weapon with training montages and stylised editing cuts as he ventures through the city coming into contact with an array of characters that comprise of his close friends and family. DN caught up with Sievers to learn more about the personal inspiration behind the film, how he achieved its throwback stylisation, and the importance he found in taking the time to dig deep and really know his story.
What’s the story behind how Samurai Sword came to be?
I started developing this short back in 2017. Originally, it was a sketch meant to be shot with a friend of mine with who I had been making stuff consistently for a few years. However, after a while of making comedy sketches, I started to ask myself what these characters would be like in a longer format. In a sketch, you can kinda hit the joke or character, and get out. In a short, you really have to answer the question “why?” and that takes more time and became more interesting to me. Around this time I also realized that I had been directing, writing, and acting in a lot of friends’ projects but it was always collaborative. That’s great, but I really wanted to make something that felt like my voice.
What made you land on a narrative about a man obsessed with a sword?
Honestly, the idea came from growing up in Kentucky and going to all these sketchy flea markets. For some reason, every flea market had a ‘sword guy’ and I think that’s so funny. The character was based around me and my friends in middle school. We’d run around our backyards pretending we have powers and stuff, wearing anime shirts, watching Dragon Ball Z, etc. Honestly it was a great time. I wondered what that person would be like as an adult, though.
How did you find diving into that kind of character and fleshing him out?
I did a lot of improv at The Annoyance in Chicago, and their big thing was figuring out the character and letting the character drive your decisions. So, that’s how I wrote it. I had a good idea of the ‘kind’ of guy it was about, plus the premise of a sketch, and then I just started asking ‘why’ until I had answers. Also, I had friends read drafts of the short every step of the way and their notes helped me keep asking ‘why’.
A lot of what this character goes through are lessons I was learning in my real life.
Additionally, around the time I started writing I had just started going to therapy. Going to therapy changed my life for the better in ways I can’t even calculate. A lot of what this character goes through are lessons I was learning in my real life. Basically just being selfish, stuck in your ways, seeing how your behaviour affects others, etc. I definitely used this short as a way to explore those feelings and say to myself that change is hard, but ultimately necessary if you want to grow.
You mentioned earlier that answering the “why” of things can be a driving force to stronger work, could you tell us how that came into play when making Samurai Sword both creatively and practically?
During pre-production, a lot of the answers to ‘why’ came together for me. The thing about working with people smarter than you is that they will ask you hard questions. Hard questions force you to dig down and understand the story you’re trying to tell. The more questions I answered, the better I understood the story.
For example, my wife, Megan Jesmer, art directed the short. Her vision about colour, theme, design, etc. was integral to telling the story, and that took a lot of discussion. It wouldn’t be anywhere near what it is without her input. Taylor Frontier, the director of photography, really helped me be specific when thinking about shots. He has an amazing eye for framing based on the story. When I met with the composer Alex Mitchell he asked me a ton of questions to understand the story before we even discussed music. That really forced me to know my shit because I had to explain it clearly. I also worked with acting coach Larry Singer in NY, who worked with me on the ‘why’ as an actor. Then last but not least, the producers Keep or Destroy, gave me lots of notes and feedback that, once again, helped me nail down the story and answer questions.
How was it for yourself during the production of your first foray into short film directing?
During production, knowing the story like the back of my hand was essential because as we all know, shit almost always hits the fan when you’re shooting. If you know the character and story, you can be agile and make decisions on the fly to adjust to whatever insane problem pops up. However, the rest of the cast was key to riding those production highs and lows. They absolutely killed it and kept me locked in.
Was it a challenge to piece together what you had shot? I really love the fragmented stylised sequences where Daniel’s playing with the sword.
Post-production was probably the hardest part for me. We shot on the Sony FS7 MKII with a Canon 17-120mm lens. Originally, the short was 27 minutes long. I wanted it to be under 20, and it took a lot of notes from trusted friends and collaborators to help me understand what darlings to kill. Once again, though, if you know the story well you can have an easier time making those hard decisions. I gotta give credit to my wife and Keep or Destroy for watching version after version of this and giving me solid notes. The only part about post-production that wasn’t hard was working with Alex Mitchell, our colourist Clark Griffiths, and sound mixer Andy Thomson from Groundbird. They were absolutely masterful and made my life way easier.
What inspired those montage sequences with the sword?
I included the montage sequences because I wanted to show what this character believed in his head. Everyone else in the short thinks they’re crazy, but it was important to me to give him his ‘moment’ of fantasy.
If you know the character and story, you can be agile and make decisions on the fly to adjust to whatever insane problem pops up.
Then, as the sequences go on, I wanted them to change. I wanted the fantasy to slowly be fractured by the reality of the situation he’s in, leading eventually to his realization. That’s why the first sequence is pretty unhinged, then the second one is filmed through a fence most of the time and cut with more realistic shots. We wanted the fence to convey the “trapped” feeling there. Then finally when he hits his low point, it’s just him with the sword and all reality, no fantasy.
How did you find editing those particular sequences together?
Editing those sequences was a bit of a challenge. To be honest, I could have planned them better, but I went in with a general idea of what I wanted to do when we were in preproduction. I didn’t know how to do the split-screen thing going into this short, so I just kinda figured it out on the fly with some help from friends.
The split screens idea partly came out of me needing a solution to some technical problems I was running into. They just weren’t flowing as I originally edited them, so I had to think of how to engineer them to do what I needed them to do (and cut down on running time). I originally didn’t intend to do any split screens, but when I started using them I realized how much it helped tell the story. I could use them to show two conflicting ideas at the same time, or emphasize one main idea. I’m a big Edgar Wright and Adam McKay fan as far as movies go, so some of those techniques were in my head. I’m really happy with how they turned out.
How long did everything take from the beginning of pre-production to the final edit?
The first draft was written in 2017 the week before my wife and I moved to NY. We shot in January of 2020, which turned out to be right on time because COVID hit the city not even a month later. We shot over the course of four days within a few blocks of our neighbourhood in Brooklyn. From there, post-production took me about seven months and then we started submitting to film festivals. Words cannot describe how excited I am for people to finally be able to watch this short.
Do you see yourself returning to directing anytime soon? What else are you working on now?
Yes! I want to direct another project ASAP. I’m currently working on a couple micro-budget feature ideas sort of in the same world/vein as this short. One of them I have a script for and I’m getting ready to do another draft. I have also been making a lot of short videos for TikTok, Twitter, reels, etc. so that keeps me fulfilled creatively in the short term.